TWO WINTERS AGO, A 6'2" RIGHTHANDER named Mark Melancon traveled across a great sea to teach in a 10-day clinic run by Baseball New Zealand. Melancon is passionate about both the antipodean nation and its burgeoning baseball program, but the trip served another purpose: On an off day he and his wife, Mary Catherine, went shark-cage diving, a bucket list item for them. Researchers who tag, track and study sharks were also on board, and when they encountered an unfamiliar great white, they asked Melancon if they could christen it in his honor. This was how the ferocious beast became, one imagines, the only one of its species to share a name with a journeyman middle reliever.
After the 28-year-old Melancon arrived in Bradenton, Fla., this year to begin spring training with his fourth team in four years, he delighted his new bullpen mates with the story of his selachian adventure and namesake. The largely unheralded members of the Pirates' pen were searching for an identity and, in the spirit of the Reds' Nasty Boys of the early '90s, a nickname to go with it. Melancon—and Melancon—inspired them: They would be known as the Shark Tank. "When the [bullpen] gate opens, you smell blood, just like a shark," explains lefthander Tony Watson. "You're going out there to attack hitters, be aggressive. That kind of symbolizes the way sharks are in the water.... I guess. I'm not a big oceanographer."
Across the major leagues, this season has been defined by upstarts and party crashers. Several division races look like upside-down versions of what most experts predicted back in April: The Angels, Nationals and Blue Jays, three preseason darlings, all have struggled just to play .500, while the Red Sox (page 38), A's (page 39) and the Braves (page 41) and reached the All-Star break as surprise leaders in the American League East, the AL West and the NL East, respectively. But there is no doubt as to which unlikely contender is the most enthralling and surprising. It is Pittsburgh, the owner of the longest-ever streak of losing seasons in major American professional sports—it reached 20 in 2012. Yet the Pirates finished the first half at 56--37, with the game's second-best record.
Pittsburgh's success has, in significant measure, been derived from the Shark Tank, a nickname that has been made official via social media, T-shirts and the 150-gallon aquarium, courtesy of Elmer's Aquarium and Pet Center of Monroeville, Pa., that contains a small coral cat shark and a banded cat shark and now sits near the relievers' lockers in the home clubhouse at PNC Park. The Pirates' bullpen has been asked to throw more innings, 3292/3, than any other club's but the Blue Jays', and yet it has the majors' second-best relief ERA, 2.76. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle's message to his starters is simple. "Give us seven innings, and we'll figure it out from there," he says. "If you can't give us seven, give us everything you've got, then we'll turn it over to the bullpen and see how it goes."
July 22, 2013
As it happens, six innings has almost always been enough. This season major league teams have a winning percentage of .861 in games they lead entering the seventh, but the Pirates have done much better. They are 40--2 in such situations, a winning percentage of .952. Much of the credit for that can be given to Melancon and 36-year-old first-time closer Jason Grilli, who have emerged as one of the best, and certainly the least likely, shutdown eighth- and ninth-inning combinations since Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland of the 1996 Yankees.
Melancon has an ERA of 0.81, which is more than eight tenths of a run lower than that of any other pitcher who has worked at least 40 innings. Grilli's ERA is 1.99 to go with an NL-best 29 saves in 30 chances. They, like the clinical and composed Rivera and the sweaty and emotive Wetteland, form an almost perfectly functioning odd couple. Melancon is clean-cut and deliberate in both speech and manner, and maintains a meticulously organized locker. Grilli is loud, sports long curls inspired by Eddie Vedder and has the type of locker—it contains a spatula, a small karaoke machine and various belongings of his two young sons, and a full Chewbacca suit and weapons belt—that would lead a mother to withhold dessert. "You need the yin and the yang, balance things out," says Grilli. "Sometimes, oil and water do mix."
The fast friends also traveled markedly different paths to Pittsburgh. Melancon, a former Yankee who saved 20 games with the Astros in 2011, struggled with the Red Sox last season. His ERA was 49.50 at April's end, 6.20 by October, and he spent two months in between working on his command in Triple A before being traded to the Pirates in December for closer Joel Hanrahan. Even though 2012 was a dismal year for Melancon, Pittsburgh's scouts observed little change in his skills. "They saw him early, saw him middle, saw him late," says G.M. Neal Huntington. "They saw the life to the fastball, the explosiveness of the cutter, the quality breaking ball."
It was just one bad year for Melancon. Grilli, meanwhile, had 10 of them. The righthander made his major league debut with the Marlins in 2000, and for the decade to follow he ambled around pro baseball—he has been a member of eight organizations—in search of a role in which he might excel. He was tried as a starter, long man and middle reliever. The only constant was that he wasn't very good. In 238 appearances between 2000 and '09 he went 18--18 with an ERA of 4.74 and a strikeout rate of just 6.6 per nine innings.
By 2006, when he was a Tiger, Grilli had begun to think that he might prosper at the end of games, when he wouldn't have to worry about inherited runners or conserving velocity. "I saw the rock 'n' roll of Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones entering games, and I thought, Jeez, I'd much rather do that," he says. "Nobody says, 'I want to be a middle reliever in the big leagues!' That's like saying, 'I want to be an offensive lineman in the NFL.' There's no glory in that."
Grilli was still scuffling along in middle relief in March 2010, shortly after the Indians signed him to a minor league deal. During a light running drill on one of those beautiful, early spring training mornings that has a relief pitcher envisioning an 11 a.m. tee time, he heard a horrible sound emanating from his right knee. As the excruciating pain began to register, he looked down. "It was almost like Jean-Claude Van Damme had his way with me," he says. A bone chip had come loose and torn up his quadriceps. His kneecap had shifted around his leg.
After a year of recovery, and a brief minor league stint with the Phillies, Pittsburgh signed Grilli in July 2011. While a scout named Marc DelPiano had filed positive reports on Grilli, even the Pirates could not know that they were getting an entirely new pitcher. "I'd been at the bottom rung when my leg was ripped off of me," Grilli says. As he rehabbed, he had vowed to become the pitcher that he had once thought he could be: a late game force, one who held nothing back and relied only on his best stuff.
That meant Grilli would no longer fool around with the curveballs and changeups that he had once thrown at least 20% of the time in an effort to extend his outings. He would now exclusively throw his 93-mph fastball and his biting slider that came in 10 miles an hour slower. If they got it, they got it. Mentally, it meant that Grilli resolved never to pitch with fear. "It doesn't scare me to face the middle of the order, game's on the line, all that stuff," he says. "I'm throwing every pitch like it's my last, because once I thought I had done just that. I'm not going to throw a sinker to get a double play. I'm going for a punchout."
The result? Since joining the Pirates bullpen, during which time he evolved from eighth-inning man to closer, he has pitched to an ERA of 2.52 and struck out 13 batters per nine innings. This season he is whiffing 13.9 per nine—if he maintains that rate, it will rank 13th alltime among pitchers who have worked at least 60 innings in a season. Melancon has been supplying the debilitating nibbles in the Shark Tank this season, but it is Grilli who has been delivering the fatal, artery-shearing bites.
AS EVERY PIRATES FAN CAN tell you, this is not the first time the club has threatened to end its epic streak of futility. They were 51--44 and in first place in the NL Central on July 19, 2011, only to finish in fourth at 72--90. They were in first last July 18 and 16 games above .500, at 63--47, on Aug. 8. They again finished fourth, at 79--83.
Both of those teams were unable to hold up through 162 games, with lineups consisting of superstar centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and a host of others who hadn't reached their prime, were past it or more often never had one. The pitching staffs were too skeletal, too bat-friendly to withstand injuries or any regression of performance. This iteration of the Pirates, the fruit of a six-year rebuilding plan, looks to be different.
Huntington, through years of drafts and trades, has assembled a roster stocked with pedigreed talent: no fewer than 15 members of this year's Pirates were once ranked among Baseball America's top 75 prospects, and eight of them were first-round picks. While McCutchen is having a typically brilliant season (a .302 average, 10 home runs, 20 stolen bases and the NL's fourth-highest WAR total, at 4.8), he has found new offensive support in largely Pirates-developed prospects in their mid-20s who, while not stars, have matured into .800-level OPS hitters: third baseman Pedro Alvarez, leftfielder Starling Marte and outfielder Jose Tabata.
The pitching staff's composition is more unusual. Aside from righthander Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, much of the rest of the group consists of pitchers who had, for one reason or another, failed to express their talent elsewhere, but whom Huntington acquired with the thought that they might do so in Pittsburgh. Think of 36-year-old righthander A.J. Burnett (4--6, 3.06 ERA), 29-year-old lefty Francisco Liriano (9--3, 2.00), Melancon and, yes, Grilli, who was the fourth player taken in the 1997 draft, by the Giants. "It's important to find a place that will accept you, give you the type of confidence that you need to take the next step," says infielder Brandon Inge, who caught Grilli as a Tiger. "He found a home here, and they've done well with him, but he's not alone."
The Pirates don't believe that pitching depth will again become an issue this season, if only because they have already been significantly tested. Injuries have forced them to use 11 starters, and with Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson (both are injured) yet to pitch, "we're 13 deep, and yet guy after guy after guy has taken the ball and given us a chance to win," says Huntington. In fact the rotation's ERA, 3.27, is not too far behind that of the bullpen, and the best in the NL.
All of this has recalibrated the expectations of not only Pirates fans—"They've shifted from hoping that we could win 82 games to being angry that we didn't make the playoffs last year, and that's a wonderful dynamic," says Huntington—but also the Pirates themselves. The ending of their two-decades-long losing streak is all but assured: To fail to finish with a winning season, they would have to play .362 baseball the rest of the way, which means they would suddenly have to become the Astros or the Marlins. While some warning signs persist (even that improving offense could use another bat, as it ranks 25th in scoring and 22nd in on-base percentage) the Pirates have something more than 82 wins in their sights. "I'm just trying to enjoy the ride, just the perspective of it all, knowing that there is going to be a day when this city is rocking and people are going to be happy," Hurdle recently told reporters. "And it's all going to be real good."
Jason Grilli's vision is even more specific. It's the top of the ninth. World Series clincher. His endearingly odd entrance video plays on the PNC Park screens—"It's Grilled Cheese time!" the announcer screams, in reference to his nickname, followed by nearly a minute of batters weakly flailing at his sliders, punctuated by an image of him preparing one of the sandwiches, a Pirates p burned into it. His similarly unusual entrance music, "Whipping," by Pearl Jam, blares. Then, like the other members of the Shark Tank before him, he simply does his job, the job he's been waiting so long to do. "I'd be honored to be the last guy on the hill, get that last out and celebrate," he says. "It'd be fitting. I'd be humbled by that chance, to be a part of that. I want to see people swinging from the Clemente Bridge.
"We weren't a part of all those 20 years, a lot of us, we have nothing to do with that," he adds. "But we have everything to do with fixing it."
Somewhere in the cold waters off the southern edge of New Zealand there lurks a 16-foot great white shark called Melancon.